Nebraska 8 – Ted Kooser, ‘So This Is Nebraska’

Originally posted February, 2014:

gravel - Copy

Having decided to take on the theme of Nebraska and run with this, initially because of the often comic references to it, especially in film and song, as a rather remote nothingness, I have increasingly reflected on the State, and especially Omaha, as the place of my birth and therefore significant in defining that part of me which remains inherently and often surprisingly American, not surprising because of any resistance – far from it – but because I have lived most of my life here in England.

In then researching other reflections on the State and its largest city, as well as different areas where my family and I have lived, I came across the fine American poet Ted Kooser, born in Nebraska and someone who writes about it with great affection but also visual and emotional clarity. I should also stress what a fine poet he is in general, tagged the ‘Poet Laureate of the United States’, and whose collection Flying at Night I am currently reading and from which I will at some stage post a non-Nebraskan poem. But for now, here is one aptly titled

So This Is Nebraska

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of the redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting at every post.

Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like

waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.

Nerve Damage – Analogue Flashback Books



It isn’t new but still a good idea, an anthology with an eclectic mix of writers responding to a single stimulus, here the image The Poet by Joel-Peter Witkin, 2005,


The impetus for this is explained in a note from Rupert Loydell,


I am pleased to have a poem in this collection and it is as entertaining for a fellow writer as it will be for an objective reader to encounter the range of responses to that singular source. Apart from the mention of spoon/s nine times [we’ll call it ten now, rounding it up] the ekphrastic poems see and describe with considerable differences.

Naturally, poets writing about The Poet reflect on the nature of this appellation. Paul Sutton leads off the collection with The Failed Poet, the persona whose wife, like departed readers, ruminates

‘…….God, is he still working?
No one reads his stuff, or cares.’

But the poet has his integrity because he can still assert his intentions as a writer, still trying,

‘…..If you look
hard unto any object, the atoms
sometimes wave.’

In Carrie Etter’s She, the literal ‘They are fierce spoons they are nailed into her head’ is absorbed by the other reality ‘Inchoate is she, is the long walk home’, gender not an issue but the one certain variable.

For Peter Finch in Poetry is Over, dissolution within the artistic urge to continue trying is referenced through the analogy of musicians who revamp their oeuvre, ‘musicians from the seventies’ like Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison ‘adding orchestras taking away the edges smoothing on mature value’ but ‘it never makes enough in the welter of expanded vision’.

Martin Stannard frames his response in framed deconstructions of the apparent shallowness and/or loss of identity, a recognition made empty in the artifice of its self-referencing, ‘”It’s not like you’re, like, in the real world, is it?”’

Physical features feature throughout all the poems, either as the visual metaphors in the stimulus image or what they represent, as in H.L. Hix’s title poem Nerve Damage where they are comically drawn, as of ears ‘Bigger by a barefoot crick crossin. People notice. That one ear’s biggerin Maude’s back yard’ before we are reminded that how we look is irrelevant in the bigger picture, ‘There’s a poetry to this footage of refugees receiving instruction in the language of border patrol.’

Ian Seed opens the door to uncertainty in another one of his wonderful vignettes, here about students, the visiting poet from India, a dead father, and the back door that needs its lock repaired.

For Alan Halsey the conclusion is ‘I didn’t believe a word of it’ when another narrative interprets our poet’s life, and David H.W. Grubb would have us believe his name was Spike,

‘The last time I spoke to Spike
he had his head down a long poem’

but that is another unique unravelling, a bit like Spike when composing

‘digging up unique words
as luminescent as BONGO.’

It is also The Luminous Poet for A.C. Evans where

‘…..crazy showgirls just blew my mind
Took me apart in a smash and grab, hit and run
I tell you, officer, there’s something weird in that junkyard’

or as the poet tells us himself in Rupert M. Loydell’s Rictus,

‘All my poems now are
dense scribbles between
morning and shadow.’

This damage done to the notion we can fix and agree on what we all receive and then describe, the nervous energy of the poets’ panoply is a lively buzz.


Can be purchased here:

UK: £5.00 per copy, cheques payable to ‘R.M. Loydell’
USA: $10 bill per copy, to include postage
Or I can sort out Paypal for anyone.

Rupert Loydell

4B Tremayne Close, Devoran, Cornwall TR3 6QE, England

SHOCK NEWS: DfE Drafters Defeated

As reported in today’s Telegraph [sometimes one has to…] the news about Nicky Morgan’s misspelling of sincerely as sincerily has not been justified/dismissed/countered/lied about/deflected/massaged by DfE drafters whose job it is to whitewash any criticism of government error as they have come up against the proverbial brick wall in the challenge and task of writing a defense for this whopper of a mistake:

A Department for Education spokesman said: “That’s not something we’re going to comment on.”

Please, Please Don’t Discard the KS1 Spelling Tests


It is unlikely teachers would have the time – and the relief of not having to set the KS1 Spelling Tests, even if for one year only, is a feeling to understandably pause and savour – but a further cathartic pleasure as well as creative tangent would be to take the existing tests and subvert them for actual teaching and learning.

It would be difficult, I admit, at KS1, but we are encouraged to be challenging! Whatever, and for wherever and whenever, here is an idea for stimulating groups of students to explore and discuss and write their own versions of answers to the original spelling tests: not as spelling, but in thinking about the potential of meanings prompted by single word choices [and no, not the nonsense of ‘Wow’ words, but real words].

The more words students encounter and use, there will be the experience of spelling these too, so two birds with one throw of the existential word-dice.

The following posts include the original answers to the now withdrawn spelling test, and the original ‘answer’ pages with substituted words to use, or use as ideas:

spelling four

spelling one

spelling two

spelling three


Nebraska 7 – Niobrara and Fishing

Originally posted February, 2014:

I have posted this poem before as part of a triplet, but it does, I think, stand on its own. It is a true account of an experience when I was a young boy, maybe around 8, when my father and his friend marched out ahead of me on a disused railway bridge over the Missouri River [*] raging some considerable distance below. We were all going fishing, me following behind. The gaps between the wooden ties they confidently strode across and along seemed huge to me then, and the fall to the river below was palpable both in its apparent inevitability and the fear it caused me, even now as I recall it. We also climbed down onto one of the concrete pillars that supported the railway line as our fishing platform. I don’t know how I did this either. What I do remember so clearly is almost immediately dropping my bamboo fishing pole into the river, so scared and shaking that I couldn’t hold onto it, and equally vividly, but I’m bound to doubt for some reason, there was a petrified fish [no pathetic pun intended] laying on the top of this pillar.


Did someone further down the Missouri
snare my bamboo fishing pole,
maybe by accident and, later,
when the river slowed and lowered,
sit down calmly at its side and dangle
a line into the cold steady flow,
hooked a fish I could only dream about
when scared by rapids I’d dropped it
from a railway bridge up near Niobrara?
It is always possible that someone
will find triumph in another’s fears
and it could be this optimism that drives us on,
even if we only discover it years later
when hankering after an idea of hope.

[*] Researching this evening it might have been the Niobrara River, a tributary of the Missouri. I found the picture below too just now, but I have no idea at all if this is the actual bridge. On the one hand it doesn’t in any way reflect what I recall as a massive fall to the river below, but on the other there is a sense of the huge expanse and remoteness of the place. I’m sure it is a mistake to try and literally capture and explain. Of contemporary interest as we deal with the flooding here in England, Niobrara as a village, founded in 1856, had been flooded itself so often it was eventually and literally moved to higher ground in 1977. That’s flood avoidance on a grand scale.

bridge - Copy

NB This poem also appears in my collection The Precarious Real, details here.

The Long Good Thursday

All this creative angst and then the forced-to-be-righteous Nick Glib goes and cancels the KS1 SPaG tests for one year.

As this topsy-turvy day draws to a good close, we can only hope another cock-up has the knock-on effect of getting the KS2 tests cancelled too.

Here’s to the paradox of thanking ineptitude for triumphing over policy-making.

Walking Along a Wall

He is about four years old
and like most kids his age,
he is walking along the wall
above the footpath,
because it is there,
now coming to its end
where his mother is coaxing
him down with
‘Good boy, good boy’
and it is a parent’s
positive encouragement
with her love and care,

yet then she says,
‘Good parenting’
which surprises me,
this self-referencing as a
kind of paternal narcissism,
and I wonder if she has been
reading a book
on how to raise a child,
needing advice and help when
there isn’t any other in her life?

But no, we do not need
guidance on how to stop the
boy from falling off the wall
or telling him he is doing well
because this is instinct and
common sense,
whereas that one strange line
seems like some form of
absurd mantra from a
self-help scheme
in the extreme.

There are many things to learn
but we do it from experience,
and there are many things to do
to protect a child or help
them along in life
and a wall,
like that encouragement,
and there are many things you
just know not to let them do
like running across a road
or sticking a finger in a socket
or even taking tests when they
are still young and not
walking on the pavement provided,
or even older and getting lost
or running out of breath
and falling over into walls;

tests for example
on grammar and spelling and
punctuation which are built on
barriers dangerously high above
the ground, and not built on
solid foundations,
so you must not
let your child take these tests
that do not encourage them
or offer protection.

But then, as I go through this
to and fro of thinking,
and over-thinking,
and walking along the wall too
and recalling something I read,
a dire warning by someone
who claims they know best,
and tell me what I have to do,
perhaps there is a need
because ‘Good parenting’ isn’t a
complete sentence,
is it?

How Not to End a Story of Intrigue

Psssssst – the answers are in italics

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan would seem to make mistakes faster than her predecessor Michael Gove but they are neck in neck as disasters. Nicky, who would seem to have a sunny disposition compared with Gove’s pompous poo face, is really the same in arrogant incompetence.

On the face of it, we can group education decisions by the pair of these into a singular – if you excuse the paradox – ‘two fingers gesture’ to students, teachers and parents. It all paints a familiar despairing picture of nastiness and ineptitude.

And Morgan is not a fluffy kitten when it comes to mistakes. She would no doubt try to distance herself from the latest Education error, and she can only be ironically thanked for presiding over the DfE leaking of KS1 Spelling Test papers. Ironic because it is like making a Saturday a holiday off from work: the tests have already in many cases been done as the sample they were intended to be, or they are expected to be done with no hope whatsoever of achieving their intended purpose. It is like making sweets laced with laxatives, or baking a birthday cake with exploding candles, to give to the nation’s children.

Morgan knew these tests were useless anyway, or she should have done. They exist like all the others simply as a model of measuring over actual teaching and learning: a whale full of blubber as a deceit for substance. They exist to cause a world full of pain for students, teachers and parents who are force-fed their fatuous fat.

The DfE drafters hurried out a dismissive deflection that the leaked tests were not really important anyway, like pulling each petal from a flower to destroy the evidence. It is a rainbow of deception across the blackest sky.

And then we all woke up in a peaceful bed surrounded by our teddies and this fantastical tale was just a dream……

DfE Publishing of Real [ironic] Spelling Test as Sample Test on Site

Just a quick comment on this nonsense [see further details here], but I continue to be bemused by the DfE drafters’ dodging responses to public/media queries, this one of their easier dismissive deflections:

A DfE spokesman said the paper had been removed from the website.

He added: “Fortunately this is a Key Stage 1 test which is provided to schools to support teacher assessment judgments.”

Well that’s OK then! It’s not a monumental cock-up, just an annoying erection of ineptitude.

Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To

Never Better

I saw Richmond Fontaine at The Tunnels in Bristol on Monday as they tour their final album and as a band for the last time. The Richmond Fontaine discography is considerable and it plots over time their punkrock roots, but most importantly the memorable songs written by Willy Vlautin. His musical narratives with this band, and also The Delines, tell stories as evocative as those of his novels, and of course there are reflections of themes and motifs across all. This latest album is very much a part of that continuing literary significance, as well as musically superb: as seen in a live performance of the song A Night in the City above.

In all our worlds, time advances inexorably – it is a simple law of nature – but in Vlautin’s and that inhabited by his many personas, that ‘progress’ forward is not as the cliché would have it, even if ironically, a move to betterment. Invariably, it is about dissolution, or at best, change: but it is never the same. As the album title tells us – and I am sure the line is directly or indirectly stated in many of Vlautin’s songs over the years with Richmond Fontaine and The Delines – you can’t go back. You can physically and therefore literally, but if you do, things will not be the same and they will most likely be worse, in most cases depressingly so.

Documenting such a harsh reality, as Vlautin will do from the caustic to the tenderly empathetic, is the forward momentum of this final album from his long-standing band Richmond Fontaine, and one presumes that having made this decision to end, he and the others will not go back. In many ways, all of the song-narratives are brutal, but there are those that take observation to its plainest honesty, and even the music refuses to offer plaintive sympathies to sooth the story-line. That’s how it is with the third on this album, I Got Off the Bus, and even before we listen we know the narrator has returned somewhere that should have been left in its past:

Our protagonist has returned home where a ‘friend’ said he’d pick him up, but doesn’t show; he makes his own way to Little Mexico, once a small street but now a sprawl that never ends; he calls a girl he used to know, a nurse, who had a place on 7th Street, but her dad says she has moved and is married, living in Stockton with her baby, and the dad says he remembers him, but the narrator knows he is lying; he wakes up from a sleep somewhere to see a policeman standing over me [the chorus]; he goes to the movies but falls asleep there where a nervous 16 year old tells him he has to leave; the narrator – perhaps seeing himself in the boy – reflects you can’t go back if there’s nowhere to go back to; he goes to sit by the river where the sky was full of stars and the water was rust and the night was never ending; then there is a return to the chorus and he tells the policeman I didn’t mean to run out of everything but the policeman replies he doesn’t care as long as the narrator got out of there, and the song draws musically, and simply so, to its close.

This isn’t lyrical, but it is realistic, a tale told in the nothingness of its ordinariness but which touches because of that. The music here is more backdrop to the delivery than a mimetic carrier, and that gives it its own significance amongst the other stories of drifters and losers who reflect on their loss and misery. However – and this grows with the listening again and again – other songs are transferred with a greater musical partnership, this often conveyed through the inherent yearning of pedal steel, as with fourth Whitey and Me.

There are two songs that stand out for me in this memorable whole of such emotive storytelling, and the first is I Can’t Black It Out If I Wake Up and Remember. Rather than paraphrase the narrative – you will know its despairing reflection – it is Vlautin’s wholly empathetic vocal that pains here, the constant inflections upwards mirroring the hurt, it seems, and a beautiful wordless chorus line – also the guitar vibrato that slowly follows. The musical build-up to that cooed chorus – drums and bass so gently worked to offset the relative crescendo, and a brooding synth backdrop like we hear in Springsteen’s similar slow ballads – is unsettling.

The second is the penultimate song on the album, A Night in the City, and the pedal steel here, played by Paul Brainard, conveys the haunted telling again of unhappy living, this time the narrator breaking routine in some useless hope of the different and better: for once I didn’t go home after shift, called my wife and said I’d be late, every day it gets harder to go home after work, so he instead and ironically goes to the home of a workmate where his life is the same or worse, and the rest of the escape from this monotony is a tale of ordinary woe, and here the relentless slow beat of the drum drives to the mean poetry of the chorus the night in the city, oh the city at night [having arrived as listeners in a musical crescendo again], this symmetry offering no more than its platitude and this rhetorical question: is this all there is, is this what life is, a job that means nothing, a woman who sleeps right next to you – and she ain’t yours at all….?

It is hard to know/describe the engagement one has as a listener to this despair without redemption of any kind [though the music, of course, in all its – there is no other word – plaintive glory does affect] and the best answer I have is its utter honesty. For a final album, Richmond Fontaine as a band and Willy Vlautin as a songwriter have never been better, especially in their musically melancholic but memorable evocation of lives that are never better for being lived, compelling us as listeners to engage with this certainty even though we believe it will never happen to us.